Like so many things that shape one's life, the first concert a child sees can have a strong influence on his or her musical taste as an adult. Mine was Barry Manilow at the Seattle Center Coliseum (now KeyArena) at the age of eight, and while my profession requires that I exhibit an appreciation for tunes on the cultural vanguard, to this day, nothing revs my engine like a soft, chewy ballad -- and I blame that on Barry (and my parents, I suppose, as I wasn't exactly clamoring like a Hannah Montana-obsessed little girl to go to the show).
Last night, prior to Manilow's concert, a rare break from his ongoing Vegas residency to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, an adult companion and I ate pizza and played skee-ball at the Lynnwood Chuck E. Cheese -- the sort of thing I might have done when I was eight. The Manilow show was a fish out of water experience as well, as we were among the few people in attendance who weren't 60-year-old female "Manilovers," who shrieked like the aforementioned Hannah Montana addicts every time a smile crept across Barry's surgically-preserved face. If the guy were interested in more than a platonic relationship with these fans -- one of whom could be found plastering letters that spelled "Manilow Girl" on her car's front windshield in the Travelodge parking lot before the show -- well, he'd have been chin deep.
With a few heartfelt breaks for Barry to recognize the cause he was crooning for, and to thank the fans for showing up in such tough economic times, the show was, to the note, a precise replica of the "Ultimate Manilow" script he follows at the Vegas Hilton. The only track he played off his newish '80s cover album was "Islands in the Stream." On the album, he's joined by Reba McEntire. In concert, his four backup singers shared the female vocal. The effect wasn't as seductively cat-and-mouse as when Rogers and Parton first collaborated on the tune, but like all things Manilow, there wasn't a flat note hit.
Say what you want about Manilow, but there are few male vocalists possessing of pipes so limber and pitch-perfect. Also an ultra-skilled pianist and composer, Manilow's got a point when he says there's never been anyone like him -- equal parts Liberace and Bennett, he's as multi-dimensional as they come. And to see Manilow in concert is to be reminded -- surprised, even -- at the sheer number of hits the guy has charted over the past 35 years.
His 90-minute set was taut and breathless, leaving little to no room for spontaneous banter and artistic improvisation. "Mandy" began with a 1975 clip of Manilow playing on a gigantic round screen at center stage. After the first verse-chorus interchange, the real Manilow took over for the younger, video Manilow. Interspersed throughout "I Made It Through the Rain" were anecdotes of Manilow's youth in Brooklyn, when his granddad would take him into Manhattan and plug a quarter into a booth that would record wee Barry singing whatever he wanted. Manilow thanksed his grandpa for being the lone member of his family to recognize his musicality at an early age.
Canned and schmaltzy as the Manilow experience can be in some respects, it is ultimately incredibly fulfilling. For one, Manilow gives every crowd a show, the consummate old-school performer who feels as though every audience member should feel like they've gotten more than their money's worth. Late in the show, stripped of his orchestra and backing vocalists, Manilow sat on a stool at the front of the stage, belting out a spare, emotional version of "Somewhere Down the Road." Here, Manilow hid behind nothing, reminding everyone in attendance that behind all the glitz and number-one hits, what got him where he is today is talent, pure and simple.